Stretch punched in the door code outside maintenance, but nothing happened. He tried again, hitting the sequence more slowly this time. Cutter’s muffled voice called out from the other side of the door. “Hang on, hang on! I’m working on it!” Stretch took a step away from the door and waited. He was about to ping Cutter on the comms again when the door slid up halfway, juddered to a stop and then slammed back down again. “Almost got it!” Stretch took another step back.
A short while later, the door finally slid all the way up, revealing Cutter holding a tangled clump of wires in his hand. He held out a hand for Stretch to stay put as he stared into the upper recess, willing the door to stay put. Once he was satisfied it wasn’t going to slam back down, he waved Stretch inside.
“Something wrong?” asked Stretch.
“It was that damn droid,” volunteered one of a pair of bare-headed troopers sitting on the floor.
“He means R0-N1,” explained Cutter. “He hit us with some kind of stun grenades, and apparently rocketed into him. Knocked us all out and left. Must have done something to the door, too. I had to hot wire it.”
“He took out all three of you? An astromech?”
“Hey, don’t sound so surprised. I told you they were dangerous. Anyway, he didn’t get us all at once. He got two of us, then apparently him later. I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything about him wandering around the ship?”
Stretch shook his head. “Can’t say that I have. I’ve been…occupied.” He glanced at the troopers on the floor. “Why don’t you two report to sick bay, and get yourselves checked out.”
“I’m fine,” one of them groused.
The other chimed in, “Nothing that blasting that tin can wouldn’t fix.”
“I’m sure, but how about you have the med droids look you over, anyway? We wouldn’t want you blowing holes in the corridor because you can’t shoot straight, would we?”
The two troopers pulled themselves off the floor and made their way into the corridor, carrying themselves as if they had just come off a spice bender in the lower levels of Coruscant. Cutter started to follow, but Stretch held him back. Cutter protested, “Shouldn’t I go, too?”
“You’ll be fine. I’m sure they’re fine, too. They just got their bells rung. Can we close that door?”
“Ennh…maybe? Might take a while to get it open again. Why? What’s going on?”
Stretch pulled off his helmet, took a step away from the open corridor and dropped his voice barely above a whisper. “Listen, have you ever considered leaving?”
Cutter replied, speaking normally. “You mean requesting a transfer from The Conviction?”
“No, I mean leaving the Navy altogether.”
Now Cutter whispered, too. “What? Why? This is what we were made for. We were literally made for this.”
Stretch shook his head vehemently. “No. We were made to serve The Republic. Not…whatever this is. Not whatever it’s become.”
“You mean the Empire.”
Stretch acknowledged the statement with a shrug of the shoulder, as silence hung in the air between them.
Inquisitor Morek sat on the floor of her personal ship, her helmet next to her. Her eyes were closed as she adopted a meditative pose, and her breaths came deep and steady. Unbidden, her comms chimed and a holographic image of the Seventh Sister appeared in front of her. Without preamble, she snarled, “Inquisitor Nianda Morek, do you mind telling me what in the name of the Sith you are doing?”
Inquisitor Morek opened her eyes, letting an annoyed sigh escape as she reached for her helmet and put it on. She gestured at a switch on the far side of the cabin, allowing her own image to be viewed by her caller. She replied testily, “I am trying to meditate, sister.”
“Don’t get cute, Morek. You know what I mean. Why have you had a hundred thousand cubic meter…rock hauled on board, and how many prisoners? Those cannot all be Force-wielders. Have you forgotten what your mission is?”
“No, I have not forgotten my mission. As I told you—”
“I know what you told me. Don’t think that I haven’t gotten a report from the commander of The Conviction. He is not at all happy with having his hangar deck converted into a home for…whatever that thing is. He tells me you have spent the last few hours just…touching it? If I didn’t know better, I would think Lord Vader had lopped off half your brain, not your arm.”
Morek’s lips contorted into an unhappy grimace while she waited for the Seventh Sister to finish. Choosing her words carefully, she said, “If you must know, Sister, that ‘rock’ as you call it is the centerpiece of spiritual life for the people of Alqassar. It seems to act as a reservoir of Force power. I have been…experimenting with it, attempting to determine how best to use it.”
“I see. And the prisoners? How do they fit in? Are they Force-wielders?”
“To tell the truth, I don’t know. Perhaps some of them. There is a priestess, in particular. She must be Force-sensitive, though she masks it well.”
“So let me see if I understand what you’re saying. You do not know if any of these beings are Force-wielders, but this rock is strong with the Force. Is that correct? Did the presence of the stone cause you to think there would be Force-wielders present?”
Morek nodded. “It must have, yes.”
The Seventh Sister let a moment pass in silence. Just as Morek seemed about to speak again, she pounced. “Let me tell you what I think, step-sister. I think you found out about the Parantua Stone from that droid, and you thought you could use it for your own selfish ends.” Watching Morek straighten her posture, she continued, “Yes, I know exactly what that stone is. Did you think the astromech had the only records on it in the galaxy? I did my own research after we spoke last. You forget that the Empire’s records also include those of the Republic before it. I should have you executed for your subterfuge, but because the Emperor has a keen interest in such artifacts, and I am feeling generous, we’ll let it go this time. However, you are to fetch that droid and bring it to me immediately, is that understood? If you need incentive, be aware that I have alerted Emperor Palpatine to the stone’s presence on board. He will rendezvous with the ship within the day. Whether he will share my forgiving nature, I do not know.” The hologram flickered out.
Morek stared at the empty space where the hologram had been for a long beat before muttering, “Kriffing…Mother of Kwath.” She got up and hurried out the back of her ship.